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Senate Considers Employment Non-Discrimination Act… Again


Participants in a march sponsored by the national gay task force assemble in Washington in support of a federal ban against discrimination in federal jobs in 1979

CREDIT: AP photo / Dennis Cook

Last week's hearing on a bill that would prohibit workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people rekindled a years-long, and often bitte,r struggle for basic civil rights protection.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) presided over a Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2011 — the first such hearing in three years on a bill that has been introduced in almost every congress since 1994.

Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, generally oppose the bill — defying public opinion. Seventy-three percent of Americans believe that job discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people should be banned according to a Center for American Progress survey taken last year. Ninety percent of Fortune 500 companies already have policies that protect gay and lesbian employees, and 50 percent also protect transgender employees from discrimination and harassment.

In addition to federal efforts to protect LGBT employees, 17 states have discrimination protections for gender identity and sexual orientation; another five have discrimination protections solely for sexual orientation.

While they hope that this go-around will see the bill pass, activists are also celebrating a historic moment: Tuesday’s hearing saw the first ever transgender person to testify before the Senate committee. Kylar Broadus, founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition, testified that he was a “workaholic” in the financial industry before transitioning — and found that his work ethic amounted to nothing once he came out.

“I suffer from post-traumatic stress as a result of the harassment I encountered in the workplace from my employer,” Broadus said. “I was then unemployed, and to be unemployed is very devastating, also demeaning and demoralizing. The recovery time — there is no limit on it. I still have not financially recovered.”

Harkin noted the historic moment, and praised Broadus for his courage in both transitioning and testifying.

Under a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling, Broadus and other transgender Americans are protected under sex discrimination provisions in the Civil Rights Act. But the ruling is less definitive (and less well-known) than a legislative decision, and Americans can still be fired or passed over for hiring because of their sexual orientation.

Antidiscrimination protection for LGBT employees has been proposed, in various forms, since 1974; initial versions of the bill did not include gender identity, and a 2007 attempt to pass a sexual-orientation-only version resulted in an ugly conflict between transgender organizations and the Human Rights Campaign, which supported the pared-down bill. No version of ENDA has ever passed either chamber of Congress.

When last introduced in 2009, ENDA died in committee. While activists suspect that the bill would see a similar fate in the House, they hope that passage in the Senate would build momentum for a future victory.

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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